Bar association group links environmental racism to higher pandemic rates, lead poisoning, and lasting tolls for tribal nations and communities of color

The civil rights arm of the American Bar Association is calling for legal reforms to prevent pollution threats and other environmental injustices. (Industrial corridor/Southeast Side of Chicago/Abigail Foerstner)

By Leonna McAfee
Medill Reports

The civil rights arm of the American Bar Association is calling for legal reforms to prevent pollution threats and other environmental injustices linking tribal communities and communities of color to everything from higher COVID-19 contagion to increased lead poisoning. 

The ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice held a virtual teach-in Feb. 3 that addressed the impact of systemic racism on environmental injustice, citing roots in ethnocide and needs for stronger regulations.

The panel stressed the connection between higher pollution levels in many areas with higher COVID-19 infection rates among people of color. They pointed to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of residents (mostly Black and poor) were exposed to lead when drinking the city water source.

“Lead poisoning is often referred to as a silent epidemic, but the people in Flint were not silent, they raised their voices,” said panelist Lindsay Heck, an associate at White and Case LLP, an international law firm with offices in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. “After the water switch, there was public outcry about the brown, smelly water,” with the color and smell linked to lead contamination. 

“There was a question of what to do about the people who had already been exposed for months. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that when ingested affects every organ system in the body but most significantly, the brain,” Heck said.

“Lead leads to irreversible brain damage, it strikes at the very foundations of cognition. It has profound effects on learning, memory, and behavior,” she said.

Lindsay Heck, an associate in the commercial litigation practice group for White & Case LLP, demonstrates the impact of lead on a child’s memory capacity. The first picture was shown to children and withdrawn. The second depiction is what a child who has not been exposed to lead can draw from memory. The third picture is the drawing of the same scene by a child with memory impairment due to lead exposure. (Leonna McAfee/MEDILL)

Two years ago during Black History Month in February, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report documenting the degree to which Black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life.  

“People are allowed to pollute; we are giving polluters a permit to pollute and that’s a problem,” said Jeremy Orr of the Safe Water Initiative at the National Resources Defense Council. “The rules and laws aren’t fashioned in a way that allow us to hold polluters accountable in a meaningful way and that needs to change.”  

The call for stronger regulations and challenging polluters has been a priority of community groups in cities such as Chicago. On Chicago’s South Side, neighborhoods have been battling environmental injustice and speaking out against pollution for decades through environmental groups such as People for Community Recovery (PCR) and Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF).

The watchdog groups continue to demand that lawmakers and industry leaders undo—and stop perpetuating—decades of unethical policies that have left communities of color, immigrants and low-income residents disproportionately battling air pollution and other health hazards. 

Black and Latino residents are more likely to live in industrial corridors where they are exposed to industrial pollution and have a higher incidence of chronic health conditions, such as asthma, according to the Chicago Department of Public HealthA recent report issued by the city earlier this year noted that “structural racism and economic hardship” are “making it more likely for certain people to live in polluted communities.” 

Panelists addressed tribal environmental issues, including the Dakota Access Pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois that was routed through Native American territories over tribal objections. In 2017, President Donald Trump reversed his predecessor Barack Obama’s order to halt pipeline construction. The panelists demanded closure of Enbridge Corporation’s Line 3, an old 1,097-mile crude oil pipeline extending from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin, that the company proposes partially replacing on a new route that includes tribal lands. 

Panelist Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and founder of the Giniw Collective, introduced this Indigenous movement led by women who are protecting sacred tribal values and battling against fossil fuels and systemic racism. She briefed the audience regarding the proposed reconstruction project of the Minnesota segment of Enbridge’s Line 3, an old, corroding oil pipeline that she said has hundreds of structural anomalies such as leaks and cracks. 

Enbridge wants to abandon Line 3 and build the brand new portion right in the heart of native lakes with wild rice watersheds through treaty territories in Minnesota. Native American tribes, in addition to the Giniw Collective, continue to protest against this pipeline and recently petitioned the Minnesota Court of Appeals to stop the construction, saying it would destroy sacred lands protected by treaty agreements, but the request was denied.

“We have seen a number of police officers carrying around assault rifles and all the things intended to suppress and oppress our people,” Houska said. “We simply cannot continue to progress without clean water and clean air and soil to grow our food. 

“It is a cultural genocide that is happening. The Indigenous peoples of this planet are telling the larger world that our actions are unsustainable,” Houska said.

In a profoundly touching moment, Houska shared what it meant to her to be from a “place.”

She also cited the Enbridge’s track record. Enbridge Pipeline 6B resulted in the Kalamazoo oil spill in Michigan in 2010. 

The pipe burst and flowed into Talmadge Creek, a tributary that flows into the Kalamazoo River. Cleanup took five years and an estimated excess of 1 million gallons of oil was spilled, according to the EPA.

From top left: Lindsay Heck, associate at White & Case LLP; Barrett Pitner, founder and philosopher-In-chief at The Sustainable Culture Lab; Scott Badenoch, co-chair of the Environmental Justice Committee on the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice; (lower left)Jeremy Orr, staff attorney with the Safe Water Initiative at NRDC; Nadia Ahmad, associate law professor at Barry University School of Law; Tara Houska, founder of Giniw Collective. (Leonna McAfee/MEDILL)

The virtual event included a Q&A conversation where panelists and attendees could interact and share information in a chat format. Jared Hautamaki, a Native American attendee and an attorney with the EPA, commented that a big part of the issue in the battle for the preservation of native lands is a “lack of brown voices” in federal agencies. 

“At EPA in the Office of International and Tribal Affairs, there have been zero American Indian/Alaskan Native employees since at least 2011, as far back as employee data is available,” he wrote. “We won’t get environmental justice when we don’t have a voice at the table.”

In December, then President-elect Joe Biden announced the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) as the first Native American secretary of Interior. Her appointment is as yet unconfirmed by Congress. 

Scott Badenoch, moderator of the virtual panel and co-chair of the Environmental Justice Committee at the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, brought the event to a close by scrutinizing the “capitalist system that profits off of what they think are disposable people.” He highlighted the concept of ethnocide, the deliberate destruction of an ethnic culture. 

“If you don’t recognize that ethnocide is the model around us, you can’t possibly begin to cure these problems,” Badenoch said. “That system needs to be exposed and changed so that we can create a model where equity is the default rather than profit.”

Leonna McAfee is a social justice reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @leemcafe.